Pedagogy (pèd-e-go´jê) literally means the art and science of educating children and often is used as a synonym for teaching. More accurately, pedagogy embodies teacher-focused education.

In the pedagogic model, teachers assume responsibility for making decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, and when it will be learned. Teachers direct learning.

The great teachers of ancient times, from Confucius to Plato, didn’t pursue such authoritarian techniques. Major differences exist between what we know of the great teachers’ styles, yet they all saw learning as a process of active inquiry, not passive reception. Considering this, it is surprising that teacher-focused learning later came to dominate formal education.

One explanation for the teacher-focused approach goes back to the Calvinists who believed wisdom was evil. They espoused that adults direct, control, and ultimately limit children’s learning to keep them innocent.

Another theory maintains that seventh century schools, organized to prepare young boys for the priesthood, found indoctrination an effective approach to instill beliefs, faith, and ritual. Many centuries later, organized schools adopted a similar approach although the outcome was supposed to be neither innocence nor a cloistered life.

John Dewey believed formal schooling was falling short of its potential. Dewey emphasized learning through various activities rather than traditional teacher-focused curriculum. He believed children learned more from guided experience than authoritarian instruction. He ascribed to a learner-focused education philosophy. He held that learning is life not just preparation for life.

Adult education, too, fell victim to teacher-centered models. In 1926, the American Association for Adult Education began and quickly started researching better ways to educate adults. Influenced by Dewey, Eduard C. Lindeman wrote in The Meaning of Adult Education:

Our academic system has grown in reverse order. Subjects and teachers constitute the starting point, [learners] are secondary. In conventional education the [learner] is required to adjust himself to an established curriculum….Too much of learning consists of vicarious substitution of someone else’s experience and knowledge. Psychology teaches us that we learn what we do….Experience is the adult learner’s living textbook.

Unfortunately, only some of Dewey’s and Lindeman’s theories seeped into modern classrooms for children or adults. A century after Dewey proposed learner-focused education, most formal education still focuses on the teacher.

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

— Albert Einstein

As a result, many learners leave school having lost interest in learning. Even good-intentioned educators can squelch naturally inquisitive instincts by controlling the learning environment. By adulthood, some people view learning as a chore and a burden.

In an attempt to formulate a comprehensive adult learning theory, Malcolm Knowles, in 1973, published the book The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Building on the earlier work of Lindeman, Knowles asserted that adults require certain conditions to learn. He borrowed the term andragogy (and-rè-go´jê) to define and explain the conditions.

Andragogy, initially defined as “the art and science of helping adults learn,” has taken on a broader meaning since Knowles’ first edition. The term currently defines an alternative to pedagogy and refers to learner-focused education for people of all ages.

The andragogic model asserts that five issues be considered and addressed in formal learning. They include (1) letting learners know why something is important to learn, (2) showing learners how to direct themselves through information, and (3) relating the topic to the learners’ experiences. In addition, (4) people will not learn until they are ready and motivated to learn. Often this (5) requires helping them overcome inhibitions, behaviors, and beliefs about learning.

Unfortunately, andragogy usually is cited in education texts as the way adults learn. Knowles himself concedes that four of andragogy’s five key assumptions apply equally to adults and children. The sole difference is that children have fewer experiences and pre-established beliefs than adults and thus have less to relate.

In the information age, the implications of a move from teacher-centered to learner-centered education are staggering. Postponing or suppressing this move will slow our ability to learn new technology and gain competitive advantage.

How can we expect to analyze and synthesize so much information if we turn to others to determine what should be learned, how it will be learned, and when it will be learned?

Though our grandchildren or great-grandchildren may be free of pedagogic bias, most adults today are not offered that luxury. To succeed, we must unlearn our teacher-reliance.

We must take it upon ourselves to meet our learning needs and demand training providers do the same. To know our demands, we must know how we process information.

Some of this text was originally published in a whitepaper Marcia wrote in 1995 for Wave Technologies entitled “Learning: The Critical Technology.” You can download the entire whitepaper here in Adobe Acrobat format (280K).

  1. Pedagogy from the Greek word paid, meaning “child,” and agogus meaning “leader of.”
  2. Malcolm Knowles (1998). The adult learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
  3. John Dewey tested and proved his theories in the Laboratory School, established at the University of Chicago in 1896.
  4. Eduard C. Lindeman (1926). The meaning of adult education. New York: New Republic. Redistributed edition 1989.
  5. In The Adult Learner, Knowles stated that Andragogy is not a new word. It was used in Germany as early as 1833 and has been used extensively during the last decade in Yugoslavia, France and Holland. It is also worth noting that in 1927, Martha Anderson and Eduard Lindeman used the term in a volume titled Education Through Experience.